What has happened to the Premier League? Explaining a wild start to the 2020/21 season

The lack of fans, a shortened pre-season and the pandemic itself have all combined to create this remarkable combination of results

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 05 October 2020 10:57
Liverpool defeat at Aston Villa 'should not have happened' says Jurgen Klopp

In the aftermath of Manchester United’s humiliation, one player told a representative: “Thank fuck the fans weren't there for that”. At Aston Villa, the feeling was the opposite. The only pity about an incredible win over the champions was that the fans weren’t there to witness it. This was a result that they could scarcely have imagined.

Then again, that’s been the case all over the Premier League, including Old Trafford. Things are happening that we just couldn't have dreamt up. Football has been turned on its head.

The fact this was the first ever time that both United and Liverpool had conceded a collective 13 goals on the same day seemed fairly tame.

Look at the results. Look at the table. Look… at the play! It’s been wild. As a basic example of the kind of swings we’re seeing, Leicester City can go from beating Manchester City 5-2 away from home one week to losing 3-0 at home to West Ham United the next. Liverpool can look like runaway title winners on Monday to suffering the heaviest ever defeat by defending champions on Sunday.

The wonder is whether that very lack of crowds the players mentioned has been a factor in this.

Because, although it’s a “small sample size” and thereby probably premature to talk about the drastic increase in goals, it’s fair to wonder why so many games have been so drastically unpredictable. This has the feel of a spell that will be long remembered, even if it does all level out.

It is likely a number of factors have combined to create this remarkable combination of events, and all that chaos.

The most obvious point, and one that is very important from the players’ psychological perspectives as much as anything, is that the entire football world - to go with the whole world - has been knocked off-kilter. That alone will naturally cause a few tremors. The situation still feels so alien, and actually more so than during ‘Project Restart’, because this is supposed to be the start of a “normal season”. It has been anything but.

The biggest factor is the truncated pre-season, as well as clubs having their pre-seasons at different times. There’s been no build-up. Players have almost had to just turn up and play, which in itself won’t feel right. That’s both mental and physical. There’s clearly going to be an effect from finishing last season so late. Teams just aren’t going in on the level they would used to, and are facing opposition at very different levels themselves.

There’s then that elephant, well, not in the room: the lack of fans.

To appreciate the immense influence of that, consider those Sunday games, and some of the discussions from behind the scenes.

Many in the game do feel that the “training ground” atmosphere of stadiums has led to some superior attacking play, because players are calmer, particularly as regards finishing. Villa’s chances were the perfect illustration of this. There just isn’t the same pressure.

One figure at Spurs meanwhile felt that the absence of fans kept Erik Lamela on the pitch. The argument was that, with a full Old Trafford demanding action, it would have inevitably seen a red card on recheck.

There was then the way United were playing. If the support were watching this at the ground and letting their feelings be known, it might have led to less of a collapse. It was as if the United players were just… going through the motions to a degree. That made it easier for Spurs to get at them.

None of this feels normal, which means it's impossible for things to play out in the way they usually would. There's a surreal sense to it all, influencing performance.

The Premier League has seen some bizarre results

It's not as if it doesn't matter, but it is as if it's... different.

All of this is further skewed by more standard trends like more open football tactics and the use of VAR, with the circumstances further amplifying them, too.

There’s then the “psychological contagion” of one or two wild results in the first place. In the same way one successful scorpion kick goal led to a lot of players trying them, they are now willing to try more on the pitch. A spirit of abandon takes hold. 

It was certainly difficult not to feel this was the case at Villa Park, where the Villa players would have been aware of the adventure and release that Tottenham Hotspur showed at Old Trafford. They went for it, because everyone else is.

Even Jose Mourinho, after all, was willing to just let go. It was the spirit of the day, and maybe the time.

This may all have a greater effect. If the natural inclination is to expect all this to level out, it’s possible the circumstances will just be too distorted for that to happen.

The ingredients may well be there for a season with as many unlikely outcomes as 2015-16. A few usual “rules” or realities may be temporarily upended.

If the top managers can’t apply their usual approaches to the same degree, they may not be as effective as usual.

There will be opportunity for upwardly mobile sides in a content state and good form, like Everton.

Going against recent football history, too, it is possible that any team that learns to shore up could suddenly have a significant advantage. Might that suit Mourinho at Spurs?

None of this feels normal right now, and it could yet lead to even more abnormal results.

It's possible the wild swings have only started.

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